DEEP in the heart of decimated County Durham mining country, “The Welly” stands defiant – a solid community hub where they meet for the likes of dance classes, mother and toddler groups, and knit-and-knatter.

Erected in 1929, and rebuilt after a fire in 1935, the Easington Colliery Miners’ Welfare Institute, to give it its proper name, is also the place where those most in need come to find the food bank.

Appropriately, The Welly was also chosen as the venue for an event, called The Next Chapter, which I was privileged to compere. Organised to mark a new era for the County Durham Community Foundation (CDCF), which has given out more than £35m to good causes since 1995. Chief executive Barbara Gubbins and chairman Mark I’Anson are moving on after nine years in charge, so it was an opportunity to celebrate the impact the Community Foundation has made and to look to the future.

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Splendid entertainment was provided by singers, musicians and dancers, who have benefited from grants, while speakers from a host of organisations highlighted the importance of the Community Foundation.

They included Malcolm Fallow, chief executive of the East Durham Trust, who gave an alarming insight into Britain in 2017.

This time last year, the Trust was distributing 40 food parcels a week. That has now grown to 70. Poverty in parts of the North-East is getting worse.

Malcolm, below, told the audience at The Welly how the Trust’s workers had come across one woman who was struggling to carry her two children to a nursery school in Peterlee. She had sold her pushchair to feed the electric meter to keep warm.

Another telling example of the Trust’s work is the “Holiday Hunger” programme, which sees local community centres staging events in which food hand-outs are included. The day after one such event in Shotton, an eight-year-old boy turned up “to see if anything else was happening”. The truth was that he was looking for food, so the community centre staff gave him a pasty. He went home and returned with his three-year-old sister, asking if she could have a pasty too. He came back a third time to ask if there was anything for his mother.

“He said his mother couldn’t go to the shops until the next day, which is clearly when she would be getting her benefits,” explained Malcolm. “It’s just heartbreaking to think that an eight-year-old is looking after his own mother.”

East Durham Trust’s latest project is a crowdfunding appeal, match-funded by Comic Relief, to launch “The People’s Takeaway”. As a more dignified alternative to queuing at soup kitchens, meals would instead be delivered by volunteers.

This is Britain in 2017 and it’s why organisations like County Durham Community Foundation and East Durham Trust are so important.

  • To find out how you can help, go to www.eastdurhamtrust.org.uk/peoples-takeaway

    THE Easington Colliery pit banner had pride of place during one of the Next Chapter performances at The Welly.

Enter CIC is a social enterprise in Ferryhill, which uses the creative arts to maximise the potential of young people.

The banner was held aloft as Enter CIC performed an extract from their own musical, The Wind Road Boys, expressing the pride of former mining communities.

Just a couple of hours earlier, the banner had been needed over the road at the funeral of Barry Bartholomew, who had died of a heart attack at 56.

It transpired that Barry, pictured on the left below, had been the Easington Colliery banner-carrier for decades. “Salt of the earth – a proper colliery lad,” was how he was described by Derek Rivers, who was helping serve the teas and coffees behind The Welly bar.

There might not be a pit in Easington Colliery anymore – not since 1993 when 1,400 jobs were wiped out – but the heritage and pride will never die.

Barry Bartholomew is fondly remembered but there’ll be no shortage of volunteers to carry the pit banner now he’s gone.

THE final word this week goes to County Durham Community Foundation’s outgoing chief executive Barbara Gubbins, who will shortly be receiving the CBE for services to the voluntary sector in the North-East.

Her mother was a South Hetton lass and she met Barbara’s father in the bus shelter at the top of the hill in Easington Village.

In 1919, Barbara’s grandfather was killed down the pit, leaving her grandmother to bring up three children on a miner’s meagre widow’s pension.

She was forced to use the local soup kitchen to feed her bairns.

What a sad indictment that, almost a century on, the soup kitchens, the food banks, and the People’s Takeaway are still part of everyday life here in the North-East.